In the Time of the Butterflies Themes
The main themes in In the Time of the Butterflies are the importance of family, faith against fear, and women as revolutionaries.
- The importance of family: The Mirabals draw strength from their families, and their familial relationships highlight the weight of their sacrifices.
- Faith against fear: The sisters are able to continue fighting against Trujillo’s regime as a result of their faith.
- Women as revolutionaries: As women in the Dominican Republic, the Mirabal sisters are limited in the amount of power and authority they can achieve, but they defy expectations by joining the revolution and becoming heroes.
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101
The Importance of Family
By exploring the dynamics between members of the Mirabal family, Alvarez emphasizes the potency that their steadfast loyalty to one another has during their shared struggle. Accordingly, Alvarez examines different forms of love—from sisterhood, to motherhood, to marriage—to showcase the resilience of familial bonds against forces of evil.
While the Mirabals are united behind the same cause, their ambition to fight lies in their shared desire to create a better world for future generations of Dominicans. For example, in reference to her husband, María Teresa mentions that “love goes deeper than the struggle, or maybe . . . love is the deeper struggle.” In this regard, she acknowledges that she would never sacrifice her family to the cause, and for her, this sacred love—with her sisters, her husband, and later, her child—is the most important thing to fight for. Likewise, Patria’s commitment to protecting her children heavily influences her emotions and decisions, especially when Nelson is imprisoned.
In particular, as the only surviving sister of the Mirabals, Dedé learns how to carry on her family legacy as she navigates her own trauma. While torn between obeying her husband and joining the underground movement with her sisters, she reflects upon the sacred bond she has with them, realizing that “her fate was bound up with the fates of her sisters,” because “if they died, she would not want to go on living without them.” After their deaths, her grief intensifies, and when she expresses this sentiment to Jaimito, he tells Dedé that her martyrdom is “to be alive without them.”
At the end of the novel, when Dedé describes feeling the presence of her lost family members, she asserts that “even as spirits they retained their personalities, Patria’s sure and measured step, Minerva’s quicksilver impatience, Mate’s playful little skip.” Through the sisters’ shared courage, faith, and compassion, Dedé learns her own strengths and endeavors to provide her nieces with these ideals. She thus keeps the spirits of her family members alive by cultivating and nourishing familial love.
Faith Against Fear
Throughout In the Time of the Butterflies, Alvarez illuminates the role of spirituality for the Mirabals as they confront the endless traumas inflicted upon Dominicans during the course of Trujillo’s rise to power. Observing the evils and injustices wrought by his dictatorial regime challenges the sisters to maintain courage as threats against them escalate.
In particular, before becoming politically involved with the Fourteenth of June Movement, Patria—who, instead of becoming a nun, married at seventeen—questions God’s benevolence. In the following passage, as she looks at side-by-side portraits of the Good Shepherd and El Jefe, Patria describes seeing their faces merge:
I had heard, but I had not believed. Snug in my heart, fondling my pearl, I had ignored their cries of desolation. How could our loving, all-powerful father allow us to suffer so? I looked up, challenging Him. And the two faces had merged!
While Patria struggles to reconcile her faith with both her personal losses—especially of her stillborn third child—and the other lives lost to the cause, her faith in the goodness of humanity drives her to rebel against the regime. Even as she becomes a leader in the Fourteenth of June Movement, she displays compassion towards her enemies, affirming that they are also God’s “children.” Furthermore, when the priests begin to speak out against Trujillo’s dictatorship, with Padre de Jesús publicly declaring that “all human beings are born with rights derived from God that no earthly power can take away,” a conflict erupts between the regime and the Catholic Church. This endeavor “to set...
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at liberty them that are bruised” illustrates how members of the revolution exhibit fortitude in speaking out against the regime’s brutal policies.
As the personal journeys of the Mirabal sisters illustrate, faith fuels them to fight for freedom, and this commitment to championing human rights solidifies that faith has more power than fear. Consequently, Alvarez portrays courage as a marker of growth by painting the ways that each character transforms in confronting constant threats of death. As a result of their persistence in speaking out against injustice and advocating for personal liberties, the Mirabals’ fierce faith in humanity’s integrity helps transform the Dominican Republic into a thriving country.
Women as Revolutionaries
Alvarez encapsulates the impact that these real-life heroines had in cultivating change in the Dominican Republic. As women who fought to liberate the citizens from a dictator’s grip—as well as the grip of the patriarchal culture that flourished under Trujillo’s rule—the Mirabal sisters’ roles as pioneers of the revolution make them feminist icons in history.
Throughout the novel, each of the sisters confronts the cultural expectations of women in their own specific ways. Most especially, Minerva rejects these expectations and embodies feminist ideals with her commitment to being a voice of change for the underground organization. For example, when she meets Trujillo as a teenager, she emphatically declares to him that she is “not interested in admirers” until she receives her law degree. Although he ultimately deprives her of practicing law after allowing her to achieve her goal of graduating, she continues to dedicate her life to fighting for the revolutionary cause.
By intimately engaging with the journeys of the Mirabal sisters, Alvarez emphasizes how solidarity among the women—united as revolutionary forces in their shared struggle—empowers them to achieve significant cultural change. For example, during María Teresa’s time in prison, she describes the profound bond that exists among the female prisoners. In the following passage, she reflects upon how this camaraderie gives her strength to carry on, despite the initial hopelessness overwhelming her:
There is something deeper. Sometimes I really feel it in here, especially late at night, a current among us, like an invisible needle stitching us together into the glorious, free nation we are becoming.
While María Teresa, Minerva, and Patria do not survive to witness the influence their activism has in freeing the Dominican Republic from a future of horrors wrought by dictatorial regimes, Dedé—however conflictingly—manifests their legacy. At the end of the novel, when she encounters Lío at an honorary event, he stresses to her how her sisters’ influence paved the way for freedom and change. As Dedé illustrates, the actions of these revolutionary women helped transform their country into a prosperous nation, and in declaring that “the cemetery is beginning to flower,” she symbolizes how “the butterflies” invigorated future generations to mobilize behind progressive causes and defend fundamental human liberties.